Monday, June 4, 2007

Stawberry Park BG Festival - Sunday and Wrap-up

Bluegrass festival promoters face a difficult problem when they schedule for Sunday. On Sunday many people need to pack up and head for home; they need to be ready to go to work on Monday morning. Some promoters have given up on Sunday and gone to three or even two day formats. Others, like Buck Beiber here at Strawberry Park, build a Sunday that has four headliner bands. It must cost a lot of money to put Dry Branch Fire Squad, Dale Ann Bradley, The Gibson Brothers, and The Cherryholmes on the stage on a Sunday in the face of a steadily dwindling audience, but today there must have been well over a thousand people still in their seats when the Cherryholmes closed.

Dry Branch Fire Squad, dressed in suits for their Sunday morning Gospel set. This has become a tradition at Strawberry Park, as it is at other festivals where they are regular performers. Their primitive gospel sound with a lightening mix of Ron Thomasson’s thoughts about his origins in simple faith and the hypocrisy of TV evangelists provide a lovely opening for the day. Dry Branch fire squad really sets a tone of seriousness consideration of the world and the role of faith within it in such a way as to make the message palatable to people coming from a variety of backgrounds.

Dale Ann Bradley has one of the most beautiful voices in bluegrass. By adding Mike Bub on bass to her band she has improved it as only Bub can, giving the band his beat, his voice, and perhaps more important, his personality. Ramona Church on banjo, Tim Laughlin on mandolin, and Jeremy Abshire on fiddle constitute a very solid band providing the framework for Bradley’s luminous voice. In her encore, Dale Ann sang “Old Southern Porches” accompanying herself on the guitar while alone on stage. She nailed all the spectators to their seats with this lovely song. Off-stage, at her merch table, she emerges as even more warm and lovely than her onstage personality. This is quite a trick, as on-stage she comes across beautifully. If you get a chance to see and hear Dale Ann Bradley, you should take it.

After Dale Ann the Strawberry Park Kids Academy took the stage and played a few songs. These kids, ranging in age from about six or seven into the mid-teens, suggest that the future of bluegrass music is well assured. Kids who persist in playing bluegrass instruments through their teen years must be well defended against peer pressure. Often musicians represent a distinct and separate peer group in high school, excluded from the clans of jocks and popular kids. Toby Keith’s very popular country song “How Do You Like Me Now” applies to the life of almost any high school musician. Efforts like the Kids Academy help create a support group for musicians whose instruments are not in the core of school musical groups. Kim Cyr, director of the Kids Academy at Strawberry Park and President of the Connecticut Bluegrass Music Society, deserves much credit for seeing that this part of the festival works so well. Furthermore, it keeps a group of kids busy who might otherwise become bored with the multiple hours of music.

The Gibson Brothers followed for their long set. Dressed in black suits, they hit the stage up-tempo and carried the crowd along with them for a 90 minute set. Skillfully mixing their unique mix of traditional bluegrass, classic country, and bluegrassified rock, brothers Leigh and Eric reached out and grabbed the crowd. Perhaps their strongest suit is their own songs. In songs like “The Barn Song,” “Railroad Line,” “Callie’s Reel,” and “Arleigh” these brothers, singing in the close harmony only brothers can achieve, reach a musical level that is nearly sublime. No one can resist their musicality or their charm. While the brothers are the core and heart of this group, their band should not be ignored. Mike Barber has been with them on bass since the beginning. His shy smile and habit of hiding behind his bass mask a hard driving or quiet and thoughtful support always in good taste and providing the steady beat a good band needs. Rick Hayes, whose smile and sometimes wonder at what comes out of his own mandolin, has steadily improved on the instrument and brings personality as well as musical skill to his work. Clayton Campbell on fiddle combines soaring solos with tasteful back-up to every performance and has emerged as a distinct personality in the band.

The Cherryholmes Family closed the show with their usual energy and high intensity. The Cherryholmes have improved during the past three years when we have seen them a number of times. They tour incessantly and I can’t help worrying about the cost to four kids who’ve been on the road since they were pre-teens. Nevertheless, in my conversations with them at their merchandise table and behind the scenes, they seem to be happy, well-adjusted kids who say they enjoy what they’re doing. Mother Sandy Leigh seems as well grounded and down to earth as a performing mother can be. Father Jere’s act is getting smoother and he has rounded off some of his rough edges. Audiences respond well to them and they bring new fans into the bluegrass tent. Their music sounds traditional to some while at the same time careful listening reveals strong Celtic influences as well as rock rhythms and sounds. When Cia rakes her banjo it barks as loud as anyone’s. Even though they finished after 4:00 PM on a threatening Sunday afternoon, the Cherryholmes were enthusiastically called back for an encore before the crowd allowed them to leave and then packed itself up and cleared out. When we went up to the campground lunch counter at around 6:30 the place was nearly empty, and we slept like logs with a steady rain coming down on our trailer.

Some Thoughts on Bluegrass as a Big Tent

We attend a number of festivals each year. Each has a unique flavor and emphasis. Some, particularly those in Florida, have a very strong emphasis on traditional, hard-driving bluegrass. We’ve also been to several festivals that refer to themselves as Americana festivals, offering a very eclectic mix of bluegrass, alternative rock and country, R&B and more. Many festivals have in common an emphasis (or even an exclusive bias) on acoustic instruments. Our tastes have been broadened and enriched by this variety.

This weekend’s lineup at Strawberry Park was one of the strongest we have seen, and perhaps the strongest for a middle-sized festival. It ranged in style from a very traditional country fiddler from Canada (April Verch) to the very edges of progressive bluegrass with Chris Thile’s How to Grow a Band. Not every band was to everyone’s taste, but there was great music and there were great musicians. While I didn’t always get Thile’s lyrics, I was astounded at the way his players handed the lead from instrument to instrument. Sometimes it was nearly impossible to tell whether Pickelny, Thile, or Sutton was playing; the hand-off was seamless. The music was complex and interesting. It surely featured the traditional bluegrass instruments, but only occasionally did anything sounding like the traditional bluegrass music emerge. Nevertheless, this bands sound challenges and pleases.

Cadillac Sky and The Infamous Stringdusters both had marvelous sets. The Stringdusters had a long set under a hot sun and still produced at top level. Both are bands to watch as bluegrass finds new ways to keep one foot in touch with tradition while stepping into new and interesting ways to understand and present the music. The musicians playing for both groups are outstanding and their sounds are reaching out in ways that will soon allow fans to recognize their attack within the first two or three chords. That’s as it should be. The Grascals, Cherryholmes, and Steep Canyon Rangers please and entertain using much more traditional approaches. The Gibson Brothers bridge the gap with a particular genius that is gaining broader attention and will surely continue to grow as they write new songs and produce new albums.

Buck Beiber has accomplished a real feat in promoting a bluegrass festival with something to please nearly all who consider themselves to be bluegrass fans while challenging them to understand and appreciate new directions the music will have to take if it is to continue to grow its fan base. The Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival was a fine weekend.